Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 3

In last week’s post, we finished up by learning of Sadi Carnot’s eventual recognition that the phenomenon of heat relates to the smallest-scale motions of matter. I’ll start the last stage in our historical overview by introducing the term energy itself for the first time.Note 1 Up until early in the nineteenth century, the name ‘living force’ prevailed in relation to the quantity mv2, the product of a body’s mass and the square of its speed. Then in 1807, in A Course of Lectures in Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, Thomas Young (1773-1829) proposed the term ‘energy’ as an alternative to ‘living force’.Note 2 It’s noteworthy that in doing so, Young was not interested in whether this energy had some sort of metaphysical significance i.e. whether it had some sort of inherent existence. Rather, he was interested in the observation that in many physical situations, characteristic effects are proportional to this quantity, that it arises as an invariant feature of certain physical situations.[2] Continue reading

Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 2

In last week’s post I commenced a brief and highly selective look at the history of the energy concept. The purpose of this historical approach to our inquiry is to get some sense of how the pioneering investigators might have made sense of their experience of the physical world, unaided—and hence also, in a sense, unconstrained—by the conceptual tools that we take for granted today. This in turn might help us to get a better sense of what the energy concept is all about in experiential terms. The aim of all of this is to ensure that, in thinking about societal energy challenges and dilemmas, we hold the conceptual tools, rather than the conceptual tools holding us.

We started out in Part 1 by considering some of the early forerunners of the modern energy concept through the work of Galileo, Descartes and Leibniz, all important pioneers in the branch of physics known as mechanics. While the contributions of these investigators all preceded the arrival of the earliest heat engines—the general class of machines that enabled the rise of industrial society, and that continue to provide the overwhelming majority of electricity and transport today on a global scale—they had little direct influence on the rise of the mechanised world. For most practical intents and purposes, we can consider the historical precedents of the modern energy concept in terms of two largely independent paths: the physicists and mathematicians travelled by one route; on the other, we find the engineers. These paths would eventually undergo a significant convergence, but at the end of the seventeenth century, the two groups typically had quite distinct interests. While we might say that the physicists tended to focus on describing and explaining physical phenomena, the engineers were interested in harnessing physical phenomena for practical human purposes. Nonetheless, there were still important instances of crossover between the groups. The French physicist and mathematician Guillaume Amontons (1663-1705) was an important figure in this respect. Not only did he propose a conceptual design for a novel heat engine, in work published in 1699 he attempted to quantify its useful effect in terms of the labour of “men and horses”, still at that time the dominant prime movers for most areas of economic activity. In doing so, he effectively pre-empted the concept of work.[1] Motivated by the engineers’ need for a means of quantitatively comparing performance amongst different types of machines, the work concept as we know it today emerged during the early years of the eighteenth century.[2] Continue reading

Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 1

And how awkward is the human mind in divining the nature of things, when forsaken by the analogy of what we see and touch directly?

—Ludwig Boltzmann, in a letter to Nature, 28 February, 1895 [1]

Last week, in describing the observed invariances associated with each of the three energy laws, I phrased these as tendencies associated with systems. Presenting the laws in this way involved a deliberate effort to avoid the default approach of privileging real entities. What I mean by this is that it was very tempting to simply write “Energy law 1 recognises that some thing is conserved” instead of writing this as I actually did: “Energy law 1 recognises a conserving tendency”. I did this in order to make clear that I was not assuming prior existence of a thing or entity that is conserved.

To continue in this way would make everyday discourse pretty awkward. Proposing an entity-like thing to stand for the observed tendency provides a very practical way of proceeding as we communicate about our experiences with one another. More importantly though, proposing such a conceptual entity—in the case of law 1, this is in fact the system’s total or internal energy—allows for the formalisation of the observed tendency, and in particular, its quantification. It would be difficult to overemphasise the significance of this enablement of quantification. With quantification comes the ability to reduce our descriptions of situations in which we’re interested to a relatively small number of parameters. This in turn allows us to divert our attention from most of what we experience—it gives us a structured basis on which to organise our thinking about any situation, allowing us to deal with much more ‘experiential territory’ at one time than would otherwise be the case. As a consequence of this, we’re afforded increased instrumental power to manage and control the situations in which we’re interested. The formalisation aspect of this is very important: when a concept is formalised, we establish an agreed common basis on which to compare our understanding with one another, and hence to know what each other means when we talk about something. This enables highly effective coordination of actions amongst and across social groups—provided that those whose actions are so coordinated give sufficient attention to maintaining the structures supporting the formal status of their coordinated understandings. In contemporary societies, the default responsibility for this tends to be assigned to specific groups of knowledge experts, and the typical means for managing this is via formal educational institutions, such as the social infrastructure of schools, universities and the government bureaucracies that regulate them. Continue reading

Maps and territories: the very abstract nature of the energy concept

Over the previous three posts I’ve sketched out a high-level map of a conceptual landscape. The terrain we’ve been looking at, and for which we now have a very broad overview suitable for orienting our inquiry, is comprised of a set of interrelated ideas that together make up the modern energy concept. In other words, we’ve created our map not by looking directly at the physical phenomena to which the energy concept relates but by looking at the conceptual structures that others have developed on the basis of their own immediate encounter with physical phenomena and the perceptions that arose for them with these experiences. This is not to say that our map is not based on direct encounters with the particular terrain we’ve depicted—it’s just that the encounters are of a very different nature. The direct encounters upon which our map is based, rather than being of a physical nature, have their origin in the social realm of language and culture. The map represents a set of ideas already in widespread social circulation—and so the landscape it deals with is one comprising concepts formed and expressed in language.

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Thinking with systems—Part 3

This week’s post is the final in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. These posts are intended to provide a set of reference points for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. In Part 1, I presented an introduction to systems ideas as a way of thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and then went on to introduce the first of three foundational energy laws, energy law 1 relating to energy conservation. In Part 2, I looked at energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal. In Part 3 the focus is on energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’. I’ll wrap up the series with some brief comments on what this all implies for the way that we think about energy and how this will  prepare the way for subsequent inquiry into energy and societal futures.

Energy law 3: Action—what happens as energy disperses—is minimised through time

The last of the three foundational laws might in some respects be considered the most experientially obvious, while at the same time being the most challenging to deal with in the formal conceptual language available to us. This will bear further consideration down the track, as we look at the consequences following from the high level of abstraction involved in dealing with energy ideas. Given that in this post it’s the conceptual treatment we’re focusing on, this section will necessarily be the most arduous in terms of the formal ideas and language that we need to deal with—in fact I’ll need to resort to a mathematical function or two; there are also a couple of graphs coming up to represent the ideas. Continue reading

Thinking with systems—Part 2

This week’s post is the second in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. These posts are intended to provide a set of reference points for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. In Part 1, I presented an introduction to systems ideas as a way of thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and then went on to introduce energy law 1, the law of energy conservation. This was the first of three foundational energy laws that this three-part series lays out. In Part 2, I introduce energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal. This will pave the way for Part 3 next week, in which I’ll look at energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’.

Energy law 2: Energy tends to spread out from being more to less concentrated

Drawing on the last phase of the example introduced in Part 1, the very simple chair-floor-bottle system with a single degree of freedom, we’re now in a position to set out the second major law governing energetic behaviour of systems: energy tends to disperse or spread out in space from being more locally concentrated to being less concentrated, unless there’s no physical pathway available for doing so. This is a very general description of the physical behaviour that the second law of thermodynamics deals with. As with the energy conservation law, this sets a bedrock constraint to which all possible future states of any system that we care to conceive—whether physical, biological or social in nature—are subject. In other words, energy laws 1 and 2 describe limits to the possible evolutionary pathways for all situations. Continue reading

Thinking with systems—Part 1

This week’s post is the first in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. My aim is to cover some essential ideas here—where they come from, how they relate to one another—in sufficient detail for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. To this end, I’ll commence from the outset by situating energy, as is proper to the nature of that concept, in a systems context—and this requires a basic introduction to systems ideas in their own right. Further along the track, we’ll then be able to build on these ideas—systems in general, and energy from a systems perspective—as appropriate to the inquiry at hand. The overall ‘narrative of ideas’ running through the three posts introduces three foundational ‘laws’ relating to the behaviour of physical systems in energetic terms. A very simple situation will be used to illustrate each of the three laws, providing an opportunity to appreciate what each means in terms of familiar experiences. Part 1introduces the systems view as an approach to thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and with this as background, looks into energy law 1, that of energy conservation. In Part 2, I’ll look at energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal; and in Part 3 I’ll  take an in-depth look at energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’.

In last week’s post, I introduced the energy concept as the capacity to do work or transfer heat. In establishing this relationship between energy, work and heat, we have a handy basis for linking energy—an abstract concept used to think and communicate about physical situations in which we’re interested—with direct physical-world experiences. For while work and heat have very precise meanings in this context—they are formally defined, abstract concepts in their own right—these meanings relate closely to the common use of these terms in everyday language. Before we delve further into energy, work and heat though, there’s a more basic matter that we need to deal with, one that goes right to the heart of developing an effective working relationship with the energy idea: a capacity is always a capacity of something. But just what is it exactly that has this capacity that we’re interested in?

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